Saturday, October 8, 2011

Explaining Canadian Thanksgiving

"O hushed October morning mild, 
Begin the hours of this day slow 
Make the day seem to us less brief." 
Robert Frost

Ah, I love three day weekends! Only bad thing is, I get stuck doing all the cooking. I’m such a sucker for ingratiating flattery like “No one makes dinners like you do”. Aside from the fact it’s probably true, they just don’t want to cook.

Not only is it Thanksgiving in Canada, but I also found out that it’s Columbus Day in the States. Who knew? So, no matter what side of the border you are on, this is bound to be a great weekend.

All I know is nothing touches my table that is not fresh gathered from our garden in the spirit of the harvest, and everyone contributes a little bit of anything that they grew or picked through the season and I cook it. Our turkey is free range and we get it from a friendly local farm family just down the road from us, the apples picked from the trees and the wild cranberries gathered from the bush in August and frozen, then cooked into sauce. We even fresh bake multi-grained breads, some plain and some savory.

For our American cousins who seem perplexed to find out other countries have Thanksgiving celebrations, here is a little history that may not be so surprising if you know anything about us Canucks. The origin of our Thanksgiving is much more diverse since Canada was primarily settled by English and French settlers, and thus two separate traditions were born. The French who settled in Quebec also had a great feast to give thanks called "The Order of Good Cheer" and gladly shared their food with their Indian neighbours, the Mi’kmaqs, even seating their chief at the head of the table. It was often the native peoples who provided the geese, venison, caribou and moose which were the main meat dishes served. In this case, I freely admit the French were probably smarter than us English.

It may, however, surprise you to learn that Canadian Thanksgiving is more closely connected with European traditions than they are to our neighbours on the other side of the 49th parallel. In fact, celebrations and festivals of thanks for a successful harvest have been going on for centuries and usually in the month of October. The first one in North America was when Martin Frobisher, an English explorer looking for the north-west passage (he was later knighted and had an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean in northern Canada named after him; Frobisher Bay), wanted to celebrate his safe arrival to the New World in 1578. In fact, this shows that the first Thanksgiving was held 43 years before the pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts. However, it is generally reported that this celebration was held in Newfoundland, which came a surprise to me. First-hand accounts from those who sailed with Frobisher mentioned three actual voyages in 1576, 1577 and 1578, and nowhere was there mention of him landing in Newfoundland. Some of the ships were damaged or sunk by large ice floes before they reached their destination, while others were forced to turn back. George Best, a sailor with Frobisher, mentions sailing from England to Greenland and from there to locations in the Far North. State papers later report that the ship did drop anchor offshore in “A Newfound Land”. They also use the name Labrador, which is part of today’s province of Newfoundland and Labrador.  Referencing the Canadian Encyclopedia, it mentions the Eastern Arctic as the location, not Newfoundland. On the other hand, the on-line version of the Encyclopedia Britannica claims the first Thanksgiving in North America was celebrated at Newfoundland. I suppose it’s up the reader who they want to believe; personally, I’ll go with the firsthand accounts of the sailors and our own reference material. But the date and the people involved are not in dispute.

It certainly is an enigma, isn’t it? Canadian history is often contrary and encompassed in mystery. There is much more to this, but why bore you even more than I have already?

And one more note which seems to be a point of confusion; it is held in October because it’s logical, since we follow the ancient Harvest Festivals; our growing season is shorter and in sooner in the Great White North. Our Southern counterparts, the Americans, have a longer growing season and also celebrate Thanksgiving for a different reason; the pilgrims first year of survival at Plymouth, MA.

To be fair, we did inherit our pumpkin pie (which I excel at making, by the way) and the turkey from Americans, during the American Revolutionary War. Some were British loyalists who escaped up to Canada, bringing these traditions with them and which we happily adopted. For a few years after that, we made it a national holiday in early November or late October until 1931 when Thanksgiving and Armistice Day was separated (we celebrated them together), and Armistice Day was renamed Remembrance Day (November 11th). Then on January 31, 1957, it was declared by Parliament that the second Monday in October would from herein be "a Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the Bountiful harvest with which Canada has been Blessed."

Today, Thanksgiving is celebrated with foods fresh from the harvest, friends and family being central to the festivities. Many may not be aware of how we come to celebrate this occasion, but the day is meant to be thankful for every little thing that we are lucky to have, the bountiful harvest that this land yields, and the incredible freedom from strife that many of us take for granted.

If you are curious about a different culture, here is how you can experience a Canadian Thanksgiving:

Attend the religious services of your choice. Thanksgiving in Canada is, amongst other things, a semi-religious festival celebrating a bountiful harvest. It is similar to the Harvest Festivals held at many churches throughout Great Britain. It also has similarities to the Jewish Sukkot harvest celebration.

Go for a hike outdoors, or you could alternately go for a weekend camping trip. The three-day weekend that marks Canadian Thanksgiving is often seen as the last chance to get outdoors and enjoy the glorious fall weather before winter sets in. We have often done this, along with great fishing and less crowds. Have lots of firewood; you're going to need it!

Have a Canadian movie marathon. You can rent contemporary Canadian movies like "The Triplets of Belleville" or "Dragon Boys", old classics like "Rose Marie" with Jeanette MacDonald and singing Mountie Nelson Eddy, a new classic like "Gunless" (hilarious, by the way) and “Canadian Bacon”; TV shows like "Due South", re-runs of SCTV (especially Bob and Doug MacKenzie in “The Great White North”), or even cartoons like "Rocky and Bullwinkle”. It may even give you a bit of insight into our self-depreciating humour. And don't forget the onion rings and poutine (recipe available upon request).

Decorate the house with fresh flowers in autumn colors like reds, oranges and yellows.

Prepare a Canadian Thanksgiving feast. This may include traditional dishes well-known in the US. You can be sure to cook fresh cranberries into a sauce spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, and pumpkin pie. You can also include some regional touches such as the French-Canadian meat pie called tortiere, or maple-apple crisp (again, recipe available upon request).

Watch a Canadian Football League (CFL) game on TV. In Canada, the games played on Thanksgiving Day are the only games played on a Monday apart from the Labour Day Classic.

To one and all...HAPPY THANKSGIVING!


Carley Bauer said...

Loved the blog. Great info. Extremely well put together. I was most surprised to read that Canadian Thanksgivings as more closely linked with religion than the U.S. celebration. Really enjoyed reading this!

Beverly Diehl said...

Happy Thanksgiving to you, and thank you for the info. Being the usual self-centered Yank, wasn't even aware there was such a holiday, until recent years, nor how it was commemorated. Now I feel enlightened!